The Golden Years of Silent Hill
It’s been a long time since I’ve entered the town of Silent Hill. The series is renowned for being one of the first to craft a psychologically terrifying experience when the first game debuted on the series in 1999. Players didn’t know what to expect, and players didn’t know what was going on. All they knew was that it was freaky. I learned the hard way when I played it with a friend in his basement, at 1 AM, during a thunderstorm. Monsters were shadows that revealed themselves from crawling out underneath cars or flying directly at your head out of the darkness. Ambient sounds played tricks with your mind to make you think that a monster was near. Between the fog and the darkness, it was hard to determine which of the two worlds was more ominous. And the secretive characters and cryptic messages didn’t help either. To this day, walking Harry Mason into the Midwich Elementary School locker room is still the scariest experience I’ve had playing a video game. Silent Hill scared the bejesus out of me.
And I loved it.
Silent Hill 2 (2001) took everything that worked about the first game–a psychological plot, surrealism, atmosphere–and magnified it. The environments became larger. The characters and their motivations became more muddled. Despite having set foot into the town in the previous game, everything felt unfamiliar to me all over again. I thought I knew the town, but Silent Hill 2 proved to me that I did not. I still consider it to be one of the best PlayStation 2 games ever made.
Silent Hill 3 (2003) brought us back to the first game by extrapolating on the mysticism and characters from the original plot. The fighting style was revamped to be faster and more dynamic. The female lead gave a greater sense of paranoia and hesitation. It wasn’t Silent Hill 2, but what it did, it did very well.
Changing the Formula
Silent Hill 4 (2004) twisted everything around. The game blended first-person sequences that were psychological in nature with third-person level design and fighting that reflected a more obvious horror style. With the gameplay elements divided in such a distinct way, the feel of the game changed to one that was similar to that of Resident Evil: the terror was there, but never in a way that it could hurt you. In addition, you spent less time in Silent Hill than in the previous entries in the series, which meant that the town, as a character, became secondary, which displaced you from its foreboding-ness. The mixed features of the game thus left me feeling the same way: some aspects were perfect, while others fell short. The change to the formula did not strengthen the series. The Golden Age of Silent Hill began to crumble.
The development of the games hit a lull until Silent Hill: Origins was released in 2007. A story about the origins of Silent Hill? A return to the psychological motives of the original game? I picked it up for the PSP almost immediately and was dropped back into the town that was absent from Silent Hill 4 with hesitant delight. The fighting system was more fully integrated and faster, and there were more monsters than ever. The atmosphere was right, and the characters were mysterious as always. But Origins did something that it should not have done: it allowed the player to control when he or she passed between the two realities that make up Silent Hill. No longer did the dagger dangle above your head, threatening to cast your character into a darker realm when you were least prepared. Instead, the game played out like a high-school conversation:
Origins: “See that mirror? Touching it lets you pass between the world of fog and the world of darkness.”
Eric: “Oh… really?”
Origins: “Yep! So you know that, eventually, you have to use it to go into the world of darkness right?”
Eric: “Yeah but now that I know, it’s not creepy anymore. I know what to expect. What if I don’t want to go to the other world?”
Origins: “Well then you can just run around until you’re ready. There’s a save point right over there.”
Eric: “Oh cool. Okay.”
Then I turned the game off and never turned it back on again. Silent Hill would never be the same.
Traditions of Horror
Having control over when something creepy happens? Not creepy, Komami. The fear was gone. And that’s what Silent Hill is all about: fear. Not just a fear of the physical, but of the mental–the psychological tricks that your mind is capable of playing on you, just as it does with the characters themselves. Silent Hill is brilliant not just for what the game does to you, but for what the game makes you think it can do to you. When playing Silent Hill, the possibilities of your mind are more frightening than any surprise the game has in store for you.
I blame it on Climax Studios, who developed Silent Hill: Origins. North American horror is very different than Japanese horror. The former is about monsters and gore while the latter is about the psychological possibilities. The former is about making fears tangible and the latter relies on speculation to produce fear. A comparison between movies such as Resident Evil and The Ring will show you what I mean.
I’m sad to say that I skipped Silent Hill: Homecoming. After Origins, I did not have faith that Double Helix, another North American game studio, could capture the formula of Silent Hill.
But with the announcement of “Silent Hill 8” at E3 2010, I’m starting to regain a little faith!
What May Be: Possibilities for Silent Hill 8
In “Silent Hill 8”, you play as an escaped inmate. AN ESCAPED INMATE. Think about that for one second. How many crimes can you think of that would land you in jail? Now think of the stories that one might craft under such scenarios. The possibilities are endless.
My entire body just shivered.
Now if Komami can keep a firm hand behind the creative direction of “Silent Hill 8”, we could have a real winner on our hands. While the ‘golden days’ of Silent Hill are long past (ending with Silent Hill 3, in my opinion), there exists a very real possibility that the bejesus might be scared out of me once again if the gameplay and narrative return to a focus on the psychological. The most recent game in the series, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, removed the fighting mechanics altogether in favour of a more cinematic and story-driven experience, and although I haven’t played it, it was met with more critical success than Origins or Homecoming.
The interesting thing about “Silent Hill 8” is that it’s being developed by a Czech studio, Vatra Games. Vatra Games originates from a British company called Kuju Entertainment. While neither of these studios have developed anything to receive massive critical acclaim, the potential exists that this could be their first “big one”. That said, Vatra Games also has influence from the North American studio known as 2K games (a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive). What does this mean for “Silent Hill 8”? Based on the trailer revealed at E3, they certainly have the style down. The town looks creepier and more ominous than ever. I can only hope that the gameplay returns to the series’ roots. At the very least, Konami has handed this game over to a new studio, which would indicate to me that they were not completely pleased with the way in which either Climax Studios or Double Helix developed their entries into the series.
I can only hope and dream that “Silent Hill 8” will return to a formula that is clearly not broken. Let’s get that deep and disturbing story. Let’s make the danger and the scares about what you don’t see rather than what you do. If Shattered Memories is any indication, this could be done fairly easily. In fact, the E3 trailer shows that the mechanics of the flashlight are back, an effect which is brilliant and a perfect fit for the series.
But until more is revealed, it’s time to watch the trailer (numerous times if you’re me)!